Embedding Civic Engagement in the Curriculum in Ireland

Emma McKenna, Eileen Martin


Engagement with wider society is a key driver in Irish higher education policy (Hunt 2011). This paper argues that linking engagement with teaching through student research projects with Community Service Organisations (CSOs)[i] can offer a key route in preparing students adequately for a knowledge economy. It is based on information gathered as part of the EC funded Public Engagement with Research and Research Engagement with Society[ii] (PERARES) project as well as on existing literature and the experience of practitioners in this field.


This paper contends that whilst there are many examples of good practice in engagement through the curriculum in universities, this work more often happens in a fragmented way, relying on the goodwill of individual academics and is often not strategically embedded in higher education institutions (HEIs) (McEwen and Mason O’Connor, 2013).  The full benefits are not therefore realised at an institutional or policy level.  Whilst there are examples in Ireland where civic engagement through the curriculum is strategically embedded within universities via intermediary mechanisms (see section 3), this is not commonplace.


This paper suggests that Community Knowledge Exchanges or Science Shops[iii] should be explored further in Irish universities as a mechanism for creating a cohesive approach to public engagement through the curriculum.  Science Shops and Community Knowledge Exchanges are small organisations that enable students to carry out social and scientific research in a wide range of disciplines on behalf of citizens and local CSOs. This approach focuses on research with and for society rather than research on society.  The fact that Science Shops respond to civil society’s needs for expertise and knowledge is a key element that distinguishes them from other knowledge transfer mechanisms. In this context we are discussing Community Knowledge Exchanges or Science Shops based in HEIs, where students conduct the research as part of the curriculum.  The danger is that in delivering on so many different policy priorities, they can fall between the cracks in terms of policy development (Martin et al, 2011). This paper sets out the need for policy, practice and research to support the development of such intermediary mechanisms in Irish HEIs.  

[i] According to the World Bank, “Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”.

[ii] Study Financed by the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 244264. PERARES is an FP7 project funded by the European Commission. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.          This paper summarises learning from workpackage 7 of the Civic engagement with Research and Research Engagement with Society (PERARES) project which was funded by the European Commission under the Framework 7 programme. One element of this work has been examining civic engagement with research through the curriculum, trialling new ways of enabling students to make a contribution to communities by carrying out research on issues of community concern.  For further information see http://www.livingknowledge.org/livingknowledge/perares

[iii] Science Shops are not “shops” in the traditional sense of the word. They are small entities that carry out scientific research in a wide range of disciplines – usually free of charge and – on behalf of citizens and local civil society. The fact that Science shops respond to civil society’s needs for expertise and knowledge is a key element that distinguish them from other knowledge transfer mechanisms.
Science Shops are often, but not always, linked to or based in universities, where research is done by students as part of their curricula – under the supervision of the Science Shop and other associated (university) staff.  For further information see www.livingknowledge.org


Science Shop; Community Knowledge Exchange; community based research; civil society; research collaboration; knowledge mobilisation; community based learning

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